Hit-and-run crashes are on the rise

By Michael Brenneis

Hit-and–run fatal crashes are increasing in the United States. Why? The short answer is that we don’t entirely know. Studies are limited, and data regarding the characteristics of drivers and victims is not extensive. Many hit-and-run drivers get away. Witnesses may not be present. After analyzing federal data, however, researchers at the AAA Foundation have identified a trend and searched the literature for some potential contributing factors.

First, the numbers: AAA Foundation analysis of data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration General Estimates, and Fatality Analysis Reporting Systems reveals that in 2016 there were 1,980 fatal hit-and-run crashes causing 2,049 fatalities; the most since 1975, when record keeping began. The authors identified 1,398 fatal hit-and-run crashes involving people outside of the vehicle (pedestrians and bicyclists), accounting for the majority of hit-and-run fatalities. Since 2009 the rate of these crashes has been increasing by 7.1 percent per year. The authors cite studies indicating that over the past 30 years, 20 percent of pedestrian fatalities have been caused by hit-and-run drivers. Of note, according to NHTSA data for 2016 (which includes hit-and-run crash data,) passenger-vehicle occupant deaths have increased by 4.7 percent from 2015 to 23,714. Pedestrian fatalities are up by 9 percent to 5,987, the highest number since 1990. Bicyclist fatalities are up 1.3 percent to 840, the highest number since 1991. The increase of traffic-related fatalities is not limited to hit-and-run crashes.

Why do drivers run? Authorities in the U.S. catch about half of the perpetrators of hit-and-run crashes, so driver profiles are somewhat speculative. Studies of apprehended drivers have shown them to often be intoxicated, have a criminal record, have a suspended license, or be undocumented. They may run to escape consequences. Other more theoretical reasons to run explored by the authors include that the absence of witnesses or presence of unlit conditions affords the opportunity to escape undetected, that the driver perceives a high degree of responsibility, or that the driver is ignorant of the law.

What about the victims and conditions? The majority of hit-and-run victims are pedestrians. One study indicates that about 70 percent of the victims have been male, that chances of a hit-and-run crash are greater at night, and that fatal hit-and-run crashes are more likely where speed limits are lower, or where conditions and road design require lower speeds, such as curves, ramps, and overpasses. The authors speculate that pedestrians may be more likely to cross in these areas. Another possibility is that drivers may lose control in these areas due to excessive speed.

What can be done? So far, efforts to curtail hit-and-run crashes have varied from state to state. Some states adopt stricter punishments, which may not be an effective deterrent. Some states focus on apprehension. While it did not reduce overall crash rates, California’s law allowing undocumented immigrants to acquire a driver’s license reduced hit-and-run crash rates.

Roadway design, even when not specifically implemented to reduce hit-and-run crashes, can contribute to pedestrian and bicyclist safety by reducing the interactions between negligent drivers and other road and sidewalk users. In addition, changes in land-use policy and improved transit options could also reduce fatalities overall by offering alternatives to car travel for habitual drug or alcohol users. Although some victims had alcohol in their systems, road design changes to protect pedestrians and cyclists—who may be young, elderly, or in unfamiliar surroundings—can still reduce the fatality rate for all using these modes.

The increase in hit-and-run crashes, as identified by the AAA Foundation, points to the need for continued research, and the development, implementation, and evaluation of additional countermeasures, laws, and educational programs.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.